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Selecting Forensic Pathology as a Career: A Survey of the Past With an Eye on the Future

Hanzlick, Randy MD*†; Prahlow, Joseph A. MD‡§; Denton, Scott MD; Jentzen, Jeffrey MD; Quinton, Reade MD**; Sathyavagiswaran, Lakshmanan MD††; Utley, Suzanne MD‡‡

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 2008 - Volume 29 - Issue 2 - p 114–122
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e318174f0a9
Original Article
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Background: Each year there are about 30 to 40 physicians who train and become board-certified in the specialty area of forensic pathology, compared with hundreds or thousands in other disciplines. There are not enough board-certified forensic pathologists to cover national need. The National Association of Medical Examiners’ (NAME) Forensic Pathology Training Committee conducted a survey of its members to determine which factors influenced them to select forensic pathology as a career, and to offer suggestions about possible recruitment methods in the future.

Methods: Two of the authors developed a 13-question survey form that included questions designed to determine the demographics of the responders, education level at which interest emerged, influential factors in the selection of forensic pathology, exposure to the subject matter of forensic pathology in medical school and residency, opinions about the best educational level for recruitment targeting, and faculty reactions to selection of forensic pathology as a career choice. Comments and suggestions were also solicited. The survey was sent by email to the 552 physician NAME members who have email addresses on file at the NAME Home Office.

Results: One hundred sixty-one surveys were returned for a response rate of 29%. Most responders were full-time, board-certified forensic pathologists who had been practicing for an average of 18 years. The most influential factors in developing interest were exposure to forensic pathology in residency training and the influence of a professor or mentor. Medical school was the favored education level to target recruitment. Less than half had a forensic pathologist as an autopsy instructor in anatomic pathology residency. The number of responders who were encouraged by faculty to pursue forensic pathology was about the same as the number who were either discouraged or who perceived no particular positive or negative reinforcement. The typical scenario for forensic pathology exposure during anatomic pathology residency was a 4-week rotation at an off-site location from the medical school or hospital, with a mentor that had an adjunct, assistant, associate, or clinical faculty appointment.

Conclusions: If the past predicts the future, it will be important to ensure that pathology residents have a planned and positive exposure to forensic pathology and that forensic pathologist mentors are available to training programs. There are a variety of other methods that might be used for recruitment which include more emphasis on medical students, a more academic approach, and affiliation, emphasizing the scientific nature of the work, integrating forensic pathology more into the ongoing medical school curriculum, improving the anatomic pathology residency autopsy experience, and avoiding possible turnoffs that can be caused by presentation of sensational or unpleasant cases that are not representative of routine daily work. Improved remuneration and building esteem by peers were also cited as critical factors, as was recruitment of more physicians into pathology in general. The Committee intends to develop a plan for recruitment and retention in the field of forensic pathology. Based on the survey data, this will require a conjoined effort with the American Association of Medical Colleges, the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education, the Association of Pathology Chairman, and other entities to enable a planned and multifaceted approach to recruitment and retention in the field.

From the *Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Center; †Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA; ‡South Bend Medical Foundation; §Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN; ¶Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, Chicago, IL; ∥Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, Milwaukee, WI; **Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office, Dallas, TX; ††Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, Los Angeles, CA; and ‡‡Georgia Bureau of Investigation Division of Forensic Sciences Medical Examiners’ Office, Savannah, GA.

Manuscript received April 14, 2006; accepted May 17, 2006.

Reprints: Randy Hanzlick, MD, 430 Pryor Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30312. E-mail: randy.hanzlick@co,fulton.ga.us.

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.